What I learned from the Pussy Riot trial

The punk band are on trial because of who they are, not what they did.

I've just got back from spending two days in Moscow observing the Pussy Riot trial and meeting some of the activists and lawyers involved in the Free Pussy Riot campaign. The Russian legal system, I now know, is rather strange and unpredictable, but I think yesterday saw the end of the trial. We had closing speeches from the prosecuting lawyer, the 'victims'' lawyers (i.e. those who complained about the performance and claim to be insulted or traumatised by it), and the defence, plus final speeches from the three defendants, Nadya, Masha and Katya. The court resumes at 11.30am on Wednesday (8.30am UK time) when we may or may not have a verdict.

As ever, it's frustrating that public awareness and political momentum only comes to a head when it's almost too late. I'd asked a couple of parliamentary questions about it, and the minister for Europe confirmed that the UK was concerned about the case, was critical of the way it was being conducted, and was going to raise it at the next Human Rights dialogue with Russia, on July 13th. But apart from that, my tweets and retweets seemed to be ignored, and only the music blogs - which is where I first heard about the case - were taking any interest.

Once the trial had got underway, however, press attention increased exponentially, and there have been some excellent articles published during the last week or so. I think the problem at first was that, in the UK, people simply didn't take it seriously. It was just a silly stunt, by a band with a silly name. I don't think people realised the wider significance of what the arrests said about who wields power in Russia, and what kind of society it is. "They violated the traditions of our country" said one lawyer. Another - the female lawyer for the victims - seemed to imply that not being an orthodox Christian was in itself a good enough reason for sending someone to jail, and then went on to describe feminism as "a mortal sin". It's clear from watching the trial that Pussy Riot are facing jail sentences because of who they are, what they stand for, what they believe in - not because of what they did.

I've been asked by many people what would have been the response if Pussy Riot had pulled this stunt in St Paul's instead. As people have reminded me, Peter Tatchell was charged with a public order offence after he stormed the pulpit in the middle of a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury and ended up with an £18 fine. Some have pointed to the draconian sentences handed out to last year's rioters - which I criticised at the time - but I don't think that bears direct comparison. Yes, the aftermath of the riots was about the powers that be wanting to show themselves to be tough, and there was a lot of politics behind it, but the rioters had committed actual criminal offences. Pussy Riot have been prosecuted under an ancient ecclesiastical law that hasn't been invoked for centuries, because the authorities wanted to find them guilty of something, and something that carried a harsh - maximum seven years - sentence too.

Plenty has been written elsewhere about the shortcomings in the trial process and the dubious nature of the charges brought. The thing that struck me most was how one-sided the evidence was. The defence simply weren't allowed to call witnesses, other than a couple of character witnesses, and weren't able to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses/ victims properly either, with the judge either rushing them through it or ruling their questions inadmissible.

On the first day, I was in court, which was the sixth day of the trial, it was mostly about 'petitions' being presented by the defence lawyers and the women - petitions as in requests, for example, to be able to call expert witnesses. The judge dismissed this, saying they'd had plenty of time to call such witnesses already, even though she'd not allowed them to call anyone when they'd tried before!

Apart from the concerns about trumped up charges and justice not being done in the courtroom, there is also concern about the way the women are being treated, The women were being kept in a jail a couple of hours drive - in good traffic - from the court. On Monday they arrived at court at 8am although the hearing didn't actually start till gone 10.45, and spent the rest of the day in their glass box in court or in the holding cells on the floor above. The day's hearing finished about 9.30-ish, so that would have meant gerting back to the prison by midnight. They complained in court that they weren't being fed during the day, were only getting two-three hours sleep a night, and weren't getting time to speak to their lawyers.

So what happens now? Well, a verdict is expected in the next day or so. The public and political response will, I suppose, depend on the severity of the sentence. The lawyers have said they will appeal, possibly taking it to the European Court of Human Rights. The activists I met are well aware of the risks they face in speaking out, but are determined to keep up the campaign. They say that a certain level of political activism is tolerated, but once you're on the authorities radar, you'd better be careful.

This is about much more than three young women pulling a silly stunt in a cathedral and getting into more trouble than they bargained for. Let's hope they're released by the court tomorrow, but if not, let's be prepared to fight for them.

Members of female punk band Pussy Riot sit inside a glass enclosure during a court hearing in Moscow on 8 August. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.